The battle to assure global national security passes through Chinese cyberspace. The recent ban of Huawei and ZTE technologies by the American government raises several questions on the adoption of the 5G broadband system.
The United States was followed in its decision by Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Czech Republic, among others. All of them have imposed restrictions on the use of Huawei and Zte 5G solutions over national security concerns.
The official reason is simple. In 2017 China issued a law that requires all organizations and individuals to collaborate with its national intelligence agencies. In other words, Chinese companies are not only funded by the Chinese government but also legally compelled to work with its intelligence services. The fear is that as a result of this cooperation using Chinese technology will allow Chinese intelligence services a backdoor to penetrate the American government networks.
The second reason is that this involves lots of money and economic interests, considering that spending on cybersecurity in the United States alone reached $66 billion in 2018, according to the American Telecommunications Industry Association.
American and European universities, with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on the front line, are breaking all ties with the Huawei and ZTE groups and initiating a review of all scientific research and collaboration proposals with China, including Hong Kong. The review process initiated by MIT also concerns Russia and Saudi Arabia, in addition to China.
The universities do not want to engage in future research projects with these two companies or to renew the existing ones. They have already blocked any funding from Huawei after the US government accused the group of stealing technology and disregarding sanctions against Iran. Meng Zhengfei, CFO and daughter of Huawei CEO was arrested in Vancouver last December after an extradition request made by the American government and is still under house arrest.
Concerns are directed to the profiles inherent in intellectual property, export controls, security and access to data and widen to include economic competitiveness and national security, political, civil and human rights.
The attitude taken by the United States towards Chinese technology is quite varied. It passes from binding regulatory or administrative instruments aimed at specific producers, to guidelines such as those of Estonia. Australia and Japan. The latter have adopted mandatory safety guidelines excluding suppliers potentially controlled by foreign governments. New Zealand has blocked an operator’s plan to distribute Huawei’s 5G technology under the 2013 telecommunications law due to “significant risks to national security”.
The European Commission at the end of March stated a set of recommendations “to assess cybersecurity risks of 5G networks and to strengthen preventive measures”. But not every European country is on the same path. It seems Germany intends to pursue a kind of third way between the total exclusion decided by some countries and the creation of a security system like the one developed in the United Kingdom.
One relevant topic of 5G concerns the method that this technology uses to make communications with the mobile phones more secure. The Authentication and Key Agreement (Aka) protocol, an improved version of the one used for 3G and 4G, could make the interception of a device more difficult by surveillance tools that allow its identification and tracking.
Whether the risk of such collaboration is real or perceived, the fear remains. Adopting 5G technology from Chinese companies would introduce a reliance on equipment which can be controlled by the Chinese intelligence services and the military in both peacetime and crisis? Another consideration is that infrastructure decisions are not easily reversed. Once a 5G provider has been chosen it will be very costly and time consuming to roll back that decision and from a security perspective, potentially too late.
On the other side lies the nature and the potential of 5G. More than simply a new, cool technology that offers improved quality, speed and innovative possibilities, 5G networks have the potential of becoming the digital nervous system of contemporary societies. However, no technology can be assured to be fully secure, and the risk of unexpected vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a malicious actor will have to be factored into the calculation.
China’s known capability and inclination to take advantage of this feature make the issue of 5G deployment more than a mere technocratic matter. It needs to be considered comprehensively, recognizing that the choice of technology has both economic and national security implications.
Despite uncertainties in the process “We should carry on the spirit of partnership and remain true to our original aspirations and resolutely advance our cooperation” said Xi during the recent second BRI Forum in Beijing.
Will cybersecurity compromise Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative plan? It’s too early to state but it could slow it down, giving time for western companies to embrace a better focused strategy and conquer a bigger marketshare.